It’s an unfortunate reality that even during the coronavirus pandemic, other large-scale disasters and crises are continuing to happen, adding to the suffering that families have already experienced.
On the West Coast, the worst fire season on record has burned millions of acres and destroyed towns in California, Oregon and Washington, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate. In the South, Hurricane Sally and other storms like Hurricane Laura and Tropical Storm Beta have turned roads into rivers and forced families into emergency lodgings like shelters and hotels.
For families that have been displaced, it can be extraordinarily challenging to learn how to cope with new surroundings and also care for themselves physically and emotionally. Even in the best of times — when a move is planned and desired — relocating is stressful. So how can parents help children who have been forcibly removed from their home during a natural disaster? And what are the signs that a child needs help?
To learn more, we spoke with a developmental psychologist; a developmental-behavioral pediatrician who specializes in school crisis and childhood bereavement; and a licensed clinical social worker who helps people after disasters.
Learn to spot signs of trauma.
After a disaster, children can express their distress in a lot of ways depending on their age.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ guide on disaster readiness says to look out for the following general signs:
Changes in personality. For example, a normally quiet child becomes loud, or vice versa.
Nightmares or other types of sleep disruptions.
Clinginess, whining or tantrums.
A return to outgrown behaviors like bed-wetting or thumb sucking.
Children might also respond to stress by eating either more or less, leading to changes in their weight, said Dr. David J. Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Stress can also lead to physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches and fatigue, he added.
Re-establish a routine.
One way to reduce your child’s stress level is to have some sort of routine, even when in a shelter or temporary housing.
Try to keep bedtimes, wake-up times and meal times as consistent as possible.
Preserve as much of your normal routine as you can, but “don’t make it overly rigid or try to put them back in the same structure they had before,” Dr. Schonfeld said, because that may not be feasible. “You have to adjust what you do so that the structure is achievable.”
For example, if nothing else, “you can tell them we’re going to have dinner at 5 p.m.,” he suggested, and then follow through.
It’s also helpful to give kids choices, said Paula C. Davis, a licensed clinical social worker and a clinical director at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge in Louisiana who has helped families emotionally recover from Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.
If you’re staying in a cramped hotel room, for instance, you can ask your child where on the floor she would like to sleep or offer to let her sleep in your bed with you (if you’re comfortable with that). Or you can let her choose between a couple of different blankets. This will give her a sense of control, while also empowering her and giving her a voice.
If your family is in a shelter, you can ask your child which cot she would like to sleep on; or, when getting dressed, you can ask her to pick out her clothes if you have a choice between a couple different items of clothing.
These may be small choices, but they’re choices just the same.
Davis also recommended offering healthy snacks like fruit or cheese sticks at regular intervals — ideally every two hours — throughout the day. This can be a big challenge in a shelter, but in that case try to choose the best of the options available.
Check your emotions.
During a disaster, the way you respond to a stressful or traumatic event will help dictate how your child responds, the experts said.
“You can’t control anything in this world,” said Aliza Pressman, a developmental psychologist and co-founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center in New York City. “The only thing you can control is yourself.”
This is often easier said than done. Parents, just like kids, can have trouble regulating their emotions during a disaster, especially when faced with economic stress, hunger, the permanent loss of a home, a lack of sleep or children who are acting out.
So parents cannot afford to neglect themselves or their mental health.
If your kid is having a meltdown and struggling with her new surroundings, it might seem overly simple, but taking four deep breaths in and out can trick your body into remaining calm, Dr. Pressman added. During this time, try to remind yourself that you and your family are in a safe place, and focus on what’s in front of you right at that moment.
“Get yourself to a state where you are available to take care of your child,” she said. “Your child will then respond to your calmness.”
Help your children stay calm.
If your child is upset, first validate his emotions, then let him know that he is allowed to feel whatever he’s feeling. For example, you can try telling your child, “You’re really upset and that’s OK.”
Sometimes you may need to just sit there with him while he cries, as you peacefully take in deep breaths.
If your child is asking about their home or a favorite toy that got left behind, be honest “but not brutally honest,” Davis advised.
For example, if your house is gone and you can’t rebuild, you can tell them as much, but also add that you’re looking for a new place to live. Reassure them that you are working hard to keep them safe and to provide for them.
The American Psychological Association also advises allowing your child to cling to you more often than usual. “Physical affection is very comforting to children who have experienced trauma,” the organization’s website says.
And make time for your children to play.
“Play disarms fear,” said Davis. When we play and laugh, the hormone oxytocin is released, which can promote feelings of bonding, she added.
It can be as simple as a card game like “Go Fish” or a hand game like “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Some shelters will have kid-friendly spaces where children can run around.
According to Davis, staying hydrated also helps with emotional regulation. So make sure that both you and your children are drinking enough water.
Share how you’re feeling.
The experts recommended sharing with your children how you are feeling, in an age-appropriate way. Children are more willing to open up when you do, too.
But be careful not to do or say anything that might frighten your child or make them feel even more anxious.
“You don’t want to break down and cry,” Davis said. “Your job as a parent is to keep them safe and to talk about the ways you are keeping them safe.”
You might try saying, “I know this is hard, I know you’re sad. I’m sad too.”
Ideally, try to share your own stress in a way that illustrates your coping techniques.
For example, Dr. Schonfeld said, you might say something like this:
“When I woke up, I remembered what happened and how we had to run away to get to a safe place. And I’m so happy we’re in a safe place, but that was really scary and I didn’t sleep as well last night. But then I talked to your mom about it. And after I had some conversation and shared how I felt, and she told me how she felt, I realized that’s just what we’re going through, and it’s OK. And I felt a lot better.”
Lastly, turn off the TV and radio. Seeing scary images or hearing evocative sounds being replayed again and again can only increase your child’s stress level.
Continue to observe your kids.
In short, kids tend to do about as well as their parents do, the experts said. So if you can remain calm and reassuring, “that’s really important,” Davis said.
But any crisis can have lingering psychological effects that don’t go away simply because the event has passed: According to the A.A.P., children can show signs of psychological trauma for a couple of years.
“Major crisis events are life-changing experiences,” Dr. Schonfeld said.
If you can serve as a strong support system for your kids, they can typically start to overcome any lingering trauma.
However, if your child is having intense anxiety or emotional problems — like big outbursts, serious problems at school, social withdrawal or regression that continues for weeks on end — it may be a good idea to seek professional help from a psychologist or a social worker who is trained in assessing children who have experienced trauma.
The good news is that with the proper help, your children can adapt and thrive.
“People can emerge from an experience like this even stronger,” Davis said.
Where else can I find help?
The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers tips for coping after a disaster and ways to manage stress that are especially helpful for parents.
The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement has a free guide for parents on how they can help themselves and their children after a natural disaster.
And the Coalition to Support Grieving Students offers advice on what to say to children who may have lost a close family member or friend.
The post Family Displaced After a Disaster? Here’s How to Cope appeared first on New York Times.